We were watching cable television. "What's this?" I asked. My 11 year old eventually took pity. "It's porn, Mum," she said

Last week, after protracted family negotiations, our household got cable TV, my high-minded objections crumbling under the palpable erosion of quality in terrestrial broadcasting. "Look at it this way, Mum," said my children with only a hint of condescension. "It may not be better, but at least there's more choice." Thus illustrating one of the main ideological trompe l'oeils of the nineties: that choice actually means more of the same.

Except that this time they were right and I was wrong. Because the family package of cable TV did offer one thing I had not seen before: upfront soft-core porn.

"What's this?" I asked as we all sat together one evening channel surfing and landed on a set of moaning, writhing bodies (how come porn sex bears so little resemblance to the real thing?).

My 11 year old eventually took pity on me. "It's porn, Mum."

"Yeah, but what's it doing on family cable?"

"Well, the Living channel turns into porn at night."

"Really? How do you know?"

"Friends," she shrugged, presumably referring to the real thing, rather than the American soap.


I was reminded of this exchange at the Hay-on-Wye festival when I found myself in a somewhat acrimonious set-to with the journalist Tony Parsons, on the subject of children and the family.

Parsons, as do many people these days, believes that children are in crisis because the sixties/seventies generation's pursuit of cultural liberalism (sex and drugs and rock'n'roll) destroyed the notion of responsibility and thus the security of marriage and family. He is broadly of that generation himself, so his position has the added frisson of public recantation - yes, I did it, I loved it, but now I accept that it destroyed everything. Which makes for great copy but, as far as I can see it, lamentable history.


I mean, let's get real here. What do we think actually happened in the late sixties? That a pampered postwar generation sprang fully fledged from the head of Doris Day and set about disembowelling her to the drug-heightened pulse of voodoo rock'n'roll?

Alas, it just wasn't so. The fifties, as cultural historians will testify, were actually a transitional period for families, characterised in part by the socially engineered return of women to the home after the freedom of war work - and by the last fling of a western economy whose manufacturing base allowed for secure, long-term male employment. It was also the decade before the arrival of effective female contraception, which severed for ever the connection of sex to children and therefore sex to marriage. (My generation didn't invent the pill, remember; we just took it.) Whichever way you look at it, when the sixties generation started to pull the family house down, the mortar had already gone from most of the bricks anyway.

What has followed over the past 30 years has been an even, rich brew of political and social, left/right cause and effect. The unfortunate historical collision of cultural and economic liberalism resulted in a society where many of the ideals of the sixties simply got turned into excuses for marketing. Liberal sex being a primary one. Thus we find ourselves in a panic over the welfare of the next generation, beset by the anxiety that somehow childhood itself is being eroded by a toxic culture of consumerism (sex and shopping) from which adults (ie, the nuclear family) can no longer protect them.

It's a powerful fear and not a million miles from the one I found myself experiencing as I sat with my children watching the bump and grind of family cable porn last week.

I accept that the difference between me and Tony Parsons seems to be that where he sees mea culpa and apocalypse I see history and, despite misgivings, a certain optimism. If our children are going to be able to survive the cultural toxicity that both left and right have visited upon them they must be adaptable, energetic and in the end downright iconoclastic. By which I mean they will need to absorb and then partly destroy the legacy they have been given - much as we did 30 years before them. For us to believe that they genuinely cannot do that, that the world we have created is just so poisoned and lethal that it defies their shaping or changing, is surely a final egotism on our part, a kind of apres nous le deluge position which, especially when it comes from the sixties generation, smacks of chronic narcissism.


As for me (single mother and sixties leftover), well I just sit on the couch and wonder at my children's already developed ability to pick their way through the rubble and decode the signs.

When we rang Cable London the next day to complain about the porn, they said they were sorry but explained that we could always put a blocking signal on certain channels if we wanted.

So why didn't they put all that in the brochure, I asked later at the dinner table?

"Because," said my children promptly, "you never would have bought it if they had." Smart kids, eh? Maybe the next generation will survive after all. Now that could be the greatest blow of all to our "me" generation sixties sensibilities, wouldn't you say?

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war